Stimulants are an incredibly powerful, dangerous, and addictive class of drugs. As the word “stimulant” indicates, these substances stimulate the central nervous system, amplifying a person’s energy level via an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. Typically, stimulant drugs have a rapid onset and a relatively abrupt “comedown”, which means that the effects both set in and fade away rather quickly. It’s largely the rapid onset of their effects that stimulant drugs have remained so popular and are considered an extremely addictive family of drugs.
Of course, there are a variety of different stimulants, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and steroids; however, many stimulants have similar effects that vary only in their intensity and duration. A prime example of a stimulant with expected effects that’s surprising in other ways is crack cocaine, or “crack” for short.
View All stimulants
What exactly is crack cocaine?
You’ve probably already realized that crack is related to cocaine, which is one of the most well-known and widely-used stimulant drugs. Crack is actually a specific form of cocaine that is imbibed via smoking rather than by insufflating — inhaling through the nose — the drug in its more familiar powdered form. The reason that crack and cocaine are often discussed separately is because crack is offers a much higher intensity of effects, a more rapid onset, and is, therefore, considered to be the most addictive form of cocaine.
Crack and cocaine share essentially the same history: Both are versions of a single substance that comes from the South American coca leaf. Upon being isolated in a laboratory setting, cocaine was used for a variety of medicinal purposes as well as for common ailments like toothaches, for dieting, and even as an energy source. Crack wasn’t developed until cocaine became a ubiquitous narcotic bought and sold on the street; users found that they could mix cocaine with baking soda or some other base, put the powdered mixture into water, apply light heat, and obtain solid chunks of cocaine that could be smoked for more intense effects with a much faster onset. In fact, the efficacy of the freebase form of cocaine was so much greater than that of powdered cocaine that the United States soon found itself in the midst of a “crack epidemic”, which took place for a significant part of the 1980s and was especially problematic in the American South.
There were a couple important economic factors that led to the rapid rise in popularity of crack. For one thing, a cocaine habit would quickly become expensive, so those with an affinity for stimulants found themselves in need of a cheaper alternative. Since the efficacy of crack cocaine is much higher than cocaine, users could spend far less for smaller amounts of the drug since it was so much more powerful; however, just as the drug’s effects are quick to set in, they’re also quick to fade. So while crack was less expensive and more intense than cocaine, the rapid comedown meant even more intense cravings for more of the drug. In other words, crack cocaine was extremely difficult to stop using once a person started. This has remained one of the hallmark characteristics of crack cocaine and is one of the major reasons why it’s still a major problem today.
Effects of crack cocaine
As mentioned above, one of the main characteristics of crack, and what differentiates it from cocaine, is that its high comes in a quick burst and also subsides quite suddenly, leaving the user feeling depressed and with intense cravings for more of the drug. But crack has numerous other effects, too. When under the influence of crack, individuals often feel edgy, anxious, and exhibit excessive energy. They talk quickly, often sweat profusely, and can be quite impulsive. In some cases, users become quite paranoid, which is exacerbated by their high energy and anxiety. Much like cocaine, crack is known to deplete an individual’s appetite, makes it quite difficult for users to sleep, and causes an increase in breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure to coincide with the euphoria.
There are more permanent effects, too. The long-term use of crack has been associated with damage to blood vessels in the brain and elsewhere, making a person more likely to suffer from stroke or seizure. As well, the effect of crack use on appetite often causes dramatic weight loss and malnutrition. Crack use is also known to damage the enamel on teeth, resulting in noticeable tooth decay and other dental problems.
Crack cocaine withdrawal
Again, as is the case with cocaine, the use of crack affects the brain’s neurochemical level. In particular, crack bonds to receptors for dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin; collectively, having these neurotransmitters thrown off balance is what reinforces the rewarding behavior of drug use and amplifies an individual’s mood while under the influence. Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to having intense activity in areas of the brain where these neurochemicals are active, which means that when the individual doesn’t have crack cocaine in his or her system, the body experiences a deficit of these chemicals. This is what causes symptoms of discomfort known as withdrawal.
For crack cocaine and other stimulants, withdrawal symptoms are quite unusual, especially when compared to the withdrawal symptoms of some type of opioid. When experiencing withdrawal, crack cocaine users exhibit a noticeable lack of energy, lethargy, depression, and physical discomfort. Oftentimes, there’s a sense of anxiety and urgency that causes the person to feel a strong compulsion to obtain more crack cocaine. In addition to depression, there’s often unpredictable changes in mood, which can be accompanied by shaking and trembling of the hands and limbs. Fortunately, while crack cocaine withdrawal is unpleasant, it’s treatable.